Sunday, January 3, 2010

Part Two: Editorial

What was really fascinating about this match was not the soccer qua soccer. The margins of international soccer1 are populated with countries from all over the world, grouped by the sole criterion that, whether from a lack of population or talent-recognition and -development infrastructure, their national soccer teams can't really hang with the powerhouses of Europe and South America. And so here were two culturally and racially2 distinct groups, in pleasantly iconic kits of white and red, extracted from extremely different parts of the world and placed together on a field for a totally arbitrary reason. What was really fascinating was the dynamics of that juxtaposition, both as expressed on the pitch and in the stands.
1: With the epic tenor of New Zealand's struggle to merely qualify for the World Cup tournament, the subsequent draw of the first round (to escape which New Zealand has to contend with, among others, the defending champions from Italy) somehow felt both like an total afterthought and a sobering reminder of just how far removed New Zealand still was from the World Cup trophy. It was oddly Kafkaesque.
2: I got really curious about the extent to which underlying racism informed the vitriol directed at the Bahraini players, but even if it were possible to isolate race from nationalism, homerism, magical thinking and the urge to influence the match, cultural disjoint and conceptions of masculinity (this was actually going to be the main thrust of this post, but I got sidetracked) and a good old fashioned transport of competitiveness, the handful of people I could observe directly were a few thousand short of a representative sample. I also was curious as to whether and to what degree there was a difference between the intra-team social dynamics of racially homogeneous teams like Bahrain's and racially heterogeneous teams like New Zealand's. That one doesn’t necessarily present the same sort of methodological hurdles, unless you’re stuck in the grandstands.

The most obvious and interesting difference was the different strategies of flopping3. When the Bahraini guys wanted to sell a call, they did what we tend to mean when we talk about "flopping" in soccer: they rolled around on the ground for up to ten seconds, face a rictus of pain, clutching their leg and/or head and generally making a big melodramatic fuss. You've likely seen this on television. But live, seeing the entire tableau uncropped and unframed by close-up cameras, the lurid theatricality of it is thrown into awfully sharp relief. The Kiwi players, though, practiced a sort of indirect flopping. They made an elaborate pantomime of a valiant, but futile, attempt to stand and play on through pain and/or handicap. Either one accomplishes exactly two things in soccer terms: it stops play at a point when the opposition has the tactical advantage (or at least has interfered with the current play), and it communicates a state of affairs to the referee ("I was injured in this incident") in hopes of influencing his4 call.
3: The word "flopping" has some more specific connotations, but I'm using it here more generally to refer to any of the various stratagems players use to make an opponent's last play seem dangerous, injurious, and worthy of whatever color card the ref might be considering pulling. In this sense, basically everybody flops to some degree. Anyway, I want to get away from the standard usage for two reasons: because it has an edge of moralistic disapproval which doesn't really have a place in an examination of how each team wooed the refs (we shoot for inquiry rather than inquisition here), and because I have my own angle of moralistic disapproval on which I'd like to expound a little ("shoot for" being the key term here).
4: They were all boy refs. Are there any female refs of top-level men's soccer? I can only recall having seen men, but I haven't exactly conducted a thorough study and lord knows subconscious sexism is a thing that exists.

But the Kiwi method of "indirect" flopping says something further. It offers not just a statement of fact (which can be true or false; whether or not the player is actually hurt is irrelevant to the communicative process [though not, in fact, irrelevant]) but also an interpretation, a statement of intent ("I will play on if at all possible"). And the filter of this stoic ethos completely changed my gut reaction. In comparison, the more dramatic Bahraini flopping seemed fully despicable: its essential form of lying on the ground and wailing until an authority figure took pity5 seemed narcissistic and passive-aggressive. I didn't like how, especially in the more over-the-top cases, the All Whites commensurately upped the performativeness of their disregard for what is still a potentially injured human being. There is a chance this last one was mainly in my head. And its co-optation of the body language of greater injury made for a greater degree of dishonesty. I find it far more galling to see that someone's leg is, in fact, up to full-speed soccer against professionals if they've been rolling around screaming than if they stand up with a wince and a limp and a "no worries, mate, she'll be right."
5: Having spent much of the past year working in preschools, I emphatically do not want to see this behavior from adults, too.

And I genuinely do find those things troubling. But let's back up a step or two, because what this really comes down to is conceptions of justice. Bear with me here. Stoicism is a totally reasonable expectation of people for whom justice is the responsibility of a supervisory authority, like referees or police and courts6. Those in authority enforce the codified rules; you just get on as best you can. But that's not the only game in town. From Foucault's "The Punitive Society":
"In a passage of his Lessons On Prisons, Julius contrasted civilizations of the spectacle (civilizations of sacrifice and ritual, where it is a matter of giving everyone the spectacle of a unique event and the major architectural form is the theater) with civilizations of supervision (where it is a matter of ensuring an uninterrupted control by a few over the greatest number; its privileged architectural form-- the prison). And he added that European society, which had replaced religion with the state, offered the first example of a civilization of supervision."

Now, I'm no expert on Bahraini culture (and issues of connectivity and pocket change kept me from getting my mitts on any decent scholarship on it from my local internet café), but let's run briefly with the hypothesis that, even if it could not currently be classified as a true "civilization of spectacle," its culture is less removed from one than that of a European colony. Coming from such a culture, performative demonstration of one's injury doesn't merely lose its self-indulgent quality, it assumes a necessary role within a ritualized process of justice that is concerned with "giving everyone the spectacle of a unique event".
6: Yeah, that's two authorities, but the point remains that the mechanisms of justice are out of your hands.

As for the stoic virtue of the indirect flop? From the same essay:
"[P]erhaps the most important form of the new illegality.... concerns... not so much the body of the production apparatus or that of landed property as the very body of the worker and the way in which it is applied to apparatuses of production.... The problem is then to attach workers firmly to the production apparatus... to subject them to its rhythm, to impose the constancy or regularity on them that it requires-- in short, to constitute them as a labor force.... [H]ence a whole series of measures that, without being absolutely binding, bring about a division between the good and the bad worker, and seek to ensure a behavioral rectification... hence, finally, a whole immense worker moralization campaign. This campaign defines what it wants to exorcise as 'dissipation' and what it wants to establish as 'regularity': a working body that is concentrated, diligent, adjusted to the time of production, supplying exactly the force required. It gives the marginalization effect that is due to the control mechanisms a psychological and moral status of importance."

Granted, this quote doesn't explain shit unless you identify a stoic stance towards personal injury with the "concentrated, diligent" ethos of a labor force "[attached] firmly to the production apparatus," but I don't think that's such a stretch.


  1. It's funny, I've been doing a lot of thinking about flopping of late also, but through the vector of basketball. The increasing internationalism of the league as European/Argentinian/Asian scouting/drafting continues brings in players who have come of age in cultures less dominated by the stoicism of football than the flopping of soccer. I've had to square my Americanized disgust with the practice with the fact that it works. The shift from the world of theory to practice means letting go of a Kantian worldview of rules for a utilitarian one in which flopping is a sound tactic rather than an outrage.

    Similarly, the differing flopping techniques you describe are certainly culturally predicated, but couldn't the more stoic style also be seen as a subtler one designed to convince a referee inured to screaming caused by a (potential) foul unlikely to injure anyone to that degree?

  2. As an Australian whose football team has recently moved into the Asian federation, the medical attention style flopping is much more common amongst the Asian teams.
    All football teams flop (frankly all football players cheat the entire time they are on the field - witness the amount of players on both sides that raise their hands to indicate it should be their throw-in), but the strange 1-3 min laying on the ground till the doc comes out was particularly noticeable for me in the Asian Cup 2007. Seems baffling as these teams were often bettering Australia (or whom their opposition was) on the park and no advantage seems to be gained by the extra time spent laying down. In fact often it seemed counter-productive as the Equatorial based teams would have fitness and climate edges on Australia.

    No theory as to why this has proliferated in the area but has definitely reached is zenith all the way across Asia with Middle Eastern teams suck as Qatar and Oman being as bigger culprits as Thailand or China.

    As indicated before though, it's only really a matter of style, all teams flop (or dive in the parlance of the game) for advantage, I just can't really see what advantage this style has over the others.


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